There are a lot of dead people in Oak Hill Cemetery. Lately, there’s an increasing number of live people there, too.
Nearly every day over the past month, one or two visitors have shown up clutching “Lincoln in the Bardo,” the new novel by George Saunders. The Georgetown cemetery is the setting for the book, which takes place over a few days in 1862, when a grieving Abraham Lincoln visited the body of his son Willie in the Carroll mausoleum there.
Willie died at age 11 from typhoid fever. William Carroll, clerk of the Supreme Court, offered to allow Willie’s coffin to be temporarily stored in his family’s stone vault. The president reportedly visited the mausoleum after Willie’s funeral, even opening the casket and holding his boy in his arms.
Saunders has said that he heard about this incident during a trip to Washington in the 1990s. On his website he wrote: “That image — Lincoln with his dead son across his lap: a mix of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pieta — rose up in my mind and stayed there, for many years.”
Saunders got it out of his mind and down on paper. The result, The Washington Post’s Ron Charles wrote in his review, is “a strikingly original production, a divisively odd book bound either to dazzle or alienate readers.”
I fall in the dazzled crowd. In Saunders’s novel, dozens of Oak Hill’s residents — including its newest one, Willie — rise up to comment upon their lives and the curious situation they find themselves in. They don’t realize they’re dead, you see, and the pains and pleasures of their lives still distract and bedevil them.
[‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ arises from a tragic footnote in American history]
I like old cemeteries. To a writer, each gravestone is like an incentive: a name for a character, a tiny scrap of backstory.
That’s obviously what inspired Saunders. He mentions the Federly grave marker, a chess-piece-looking monument, topped with a vase, that ends in what looks like a nipple and is engraved with “Blessed are those who die in the Light.”
There’s Amanda French — her grave says “Lost Bringing Life to a Fair & Yet Unlucky Child” — and the Muir brothers, Felix and Leroy, twins dressed in sailor garb next to the inscription “Perished at Sea.”
There’s the impressive Collier mausoleum, an edifice of Italian marble, encircled by three concentric rose gardens and marked on either side by an ornate fountain.
“That’s fiction,” Dave Jackson said.
“That sounds nice but we don’t have anything like that,” his wife, Darla, said.
The Jacksons work at Oak Hill, where Dave is the superintendent. I stopped by the office on a recent afternoon to see how much Saunders took from real life and how much he conjured from his imagination.
Dave and Darla haven’t read “Lincoln in the Bardo.” They have the audio version, which they hope to get to soon.
Since the novel’s publication in February, the visitors have increased.
“It’s raised a lot of awareness,” Dave said. He thinks that’s a good thing.
And while there may be no Collier mausoleum in Oak Hill — no Federlys, either; no Amanda French, no drowned toddlers — there are plenty of real obelisks, draped urns, broken-topped pillars, contemplative angels, all carved from stone and arrayed in a vast, 22-acre amphitheater of the dead.
There’s William A. Caho and his mother, E. Emily Caho: “None knew them but to love. None named them but to praise.”
And Friederick W. Gieseking: “Just and upright in all his dealings, he was beloved and respected in life, and honored and lamented in death.”
There’s the writer John A. Joyce, whose monument is covered with his own aphorisms, including “Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep and you weep alone” and “The Prince and the Peasant/ The Preacher and Slave / Are equal at last / In the dust of the grave.”
There’s Minnie Lawrence. She’s memorialized on both the family tombstone and a tiny marker off to the side. It’s in the shape of a lamb, much eroded since Minnie’s death on Nov. 30, 1876. She was 9.
Interest in the Carroll mausoleum is such that the cemetery has produced a map for visitors. I took mine and followed its red dotted line until I came to the very last tomb at the northern edge of Oak Hill.
The vault is set into the ivy-covered hillside overlooking Rock Creek. I sat on some nearby steps, removed my hat and wiped my brow, and thought: Here is the very spot where the president came to mourn his beloved son.
And I thought: We’re all going to be dead for a lot longer than we were ever alive. It’s best to appreciate each hour spent above ground as opposed to below it.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.